In this edition: Bernie's allies gather in Vermont, Mississippi voters go their own way, the Louisiana governor's race kicks off before the candidates do, and Democrats' power struggles lead to more struggling.

Please, if you live in Bladen County, don't send me your absentee ballot. This is The Trailer.

BURLINGTON, Vt. — For the next three days, some of the best-known supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders's 2016 presidential bid will come together in his city for the Sanders Institute Gathering. Academics, activists, and candidates for lower office will debate their agenda, discussing everything from housing policy to the fate of Puerto Rico. Sanders himself will gave a keynote speech.

And before you ask: No, this is not about whether the independent senator from Vermont will run for president.

“This is a discussion about policy, about facts, about how we work together as progressives to shift the framework of debate and effect real change,” said Jane O'Meara Sanders, the senator's wife, who founded the think tank last year. “It is not about electoral politics or campaigns.”

Yet the campaign is coming, with a crowded and unsettled Democratic field that looks nothing like the one Sanders competed in two years ago. No coronation is expected for Sanders — not that he wants one. 

Sanders, who released a memoir this week of his “two years in the resistance,” has given every impression that he will run for president again. But after galvanizing voters by running against the party's “establishment,” and given the perception that Democrats teed up a nomination for Hillary Clinton, he has not locked up early endorsements or blocked the path for another candidate.

“It’s going to be wide open, with multiple lanes,” said James Zogby, a DNC member and Sanders ally who helped win changes to the party's primary process. “There's going to be billionaire lane, a moderate-centrist lane, an establishment lane, and then I think Bernie keeps one lane to himself. He has capacity to mobilize progressives as no one else does, and he’s a proven fundraiser.”

Sanders is careful to be clear that there's no real effort to keep other liberals or left-wing candidates out of the primary.

“I'm talking to people all over the country to get an assessment of whether I am in fact the strongest candidate,” Sanders told an audience at George Washington University on Tuesday night. There are “a number” of serious candidates, he added, and some are his friends; when pressed, in any setting, he refuses to make a negative case against them.

If there's a “progressive lane” in the 2020 race, it will probably be the busiest. Since winning reelection Nov. 6, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) has, for the first time, said he is talking to his family about whether to run for president. On Thursday afternoon, while Sanders was en route to Vermont, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) delivered a high-profile foreign-policy speech, warning against “the combination of authoritarianism and corrupt capitalism” gaining political strength in other countries. That's a theme Sanders himself had been making in big-picture speeches.

Just four members of Congress endorsed Sanders before their states held primaries or caucuses; two of those Democrats, Sen. Jeff Merkley (Ore.) and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (Hawaii), are exploring presidential bids of their own. So is Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), who in 2016 Sanders considered for a potential running mate. Booker and Merkley are also co-sponsors of Sanders's universal health-care bill, as are Warren and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), who has been making her own moves toward a run.

In interviews before the Gathering, Sanders's supporters said that the choice in 2020 remained simple. Plenty of candidates were adopting Sanders's views; none had put them forward first. Cenk Uygur, the founder of the Young Turks news network, singled out Booker as a candidate who had climbed on board with liberal agenda items but had once criticized Democratic rhetoric about Wall Street and had taken money from business interests who were anathema to liberals.

“The question is, why would we pick someone who is barely acceptable, when we have a much better alternative?” Uygur asked. "Can someone overcome the hurdle of being less progressive than Bernie? He's been fighting for these policies for 40 years, so if someone else comes out and says, 'Hey, me too,' they better not think they're going to pull a fast one on us."

Without the binary choice that faced liberal voters in 2016, however, Democratic activists and voters are happy to shop around. That doesn't matter for the organization of Sanders's campaign or finance network; it will have an impact on how outside groups mobilize. Many labor unions require a supermajority vote from their leadership to endorse, something that was more possible in a Clinton-Sanders contest than it would be in a crowded one.

The same is true for liberal groups; MoveOn and Democracy for America, to name just two national groups that backed Sanders, make endorsements based on a supermajority vote of their membership, and in a conversation this week DFA leaders said it was hard to see that happening quickly in the race for 2020. Instead of rallying early behind Sanders, the most successful vote-getter of any recent left-wing candidate, “progressive” organizations are planning to hold more forums and vetting events to see how much they can make the entire field commit to an agenda.

The conservative movement pioneered that process, succeeding in 2012 and turning Mitt Romney from a supporter of health insurance mandates to a candidate who promised to repeal the ACA. What it did not have, that year, was a dedicated following for one candidate. Sanders has what no other 2020 hopeful does: millions of supporters, some of whom refuse to consider any other candidate for president and who cite polls to argue that no other candidate on the left is so popular. Like Sanders, they dismiss the idea that he is vulnerable to negative attacks — just one negative ad, from a pro-Martin O'Malley super PAC, was run against him in 2016 — by suggesting he has been vetted in a way no other would-be candidate has been.

Sanders, who speaks often of his disdain for “gossip” reporting about 2020 and candidate jockeying, said Tuesday that his campaign had moved Democrats toward a populist agenda that no one was rolling back: a $15 minimum wage, universal health care, massive infrastructure investments and tuition-free public college. He discussed all of that as if it had become immutable, part of the party's agenda no matter who became a nominee.

“We kind of busted the discussion open,” Sanders said. “Maybe that was the most important accomplishment of the campaign.”

TURNOUT WATCH

Republicans won the year's last federal election Tuesday, securing two more years in Washington for Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith of Mississippi. While Hyde-Smith's 7.8-point win was the narrowest in any Mississippi Senate race since 1988, it was a win, and it defied some Democratic expectations about whether the new senator could excite the party's base.

It was also a revealing look at how the demographic changes that are re-sorting the parties have come even to states that aren't seeing their populations change much. Mississippi has added just 100,000 new residents since the start of the century; Georgia, by contrast, has added about 2.2 million. Yet the patterns seen in Georgia played out in Phil Ochs's least favorite state, too.

Black voters are mobilizing. Mike Espy, the first black congressman from Mississippi since Reconstruction, ended up getting more raw votes than any Democratic candidate for governor or Senate in decades. That was in large part thanks to blockbuster turnout in the state's 25 majority-black counties; Espy got more votes in losing his race (410,693) than Republican Thad Cochran got in winning his final term in the Senate four years ago (370,208).

Rural whites keep moving toward the GOP. Hyde-Smith struggled more than most Republicans to turn out the party's base. She won Lee County (Tupelo) and Harrison County (Biloxi), the two places where President Trump campaigned Monday, by just half the margin that Trump won them in 2016.

But in northeast Mississippi, the counties in the old Tennessee Valley Authority region, Hyde-Smith continued the trends visible in the Nov. 6 Senate race in Tennessee, with ancestral Democrats abandoning the party for good. In 2008, the closest Mississippi Senate race until this year, Sen. Roger Wicker (R) carried the counties northeast of Tupelo with 66.4 percent of the vote; Hyde-Smith, who ran two points behind Wicker's statewide margin, carried those counties with 79.8 percent of the vote.

Suburbs keep moving toward Democrats. Mississippi, so distinct from the rest of the South in many ways, was no exception here. While modern Democrats always win the state's majority-black counties, they tend to lose the greater Jackson area, composed of Hinds County (Jackson itself) and the suburban counties of Madison and Rankin. In 2008, Democrat Ray Mabus won just 49.2 percent of the vote across those counties. On Tuesday, Espy won them with 55.2 percent of the vote. In 2008, Mabus had run four points behind his statewide margin in Madison County; Espy, who lives in that county, ran slightly ahead of his statewide margin there.

AD WATCH

Louisiana Governor. Democrats are defending just one governor's mansion in 2019: This one, captured by the socially conservative and economically progressive Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) in 2015. The pro-JBL Gumbo PAC is out with a web ad deriding the ambitions of Sen. John Neely Kennedy (R), who has said he'll decide Monday whether to run for governor. “In Washington, he talks, and talks, and talks, because that's what Washington is good at,” says a narrator, before running down JBL's record; like most governors, he has presided over strong economic growth.

Kennedy told The Post's Seung Min Kim on Thursday that he was considering a run and talking to his family.  “If you believe the polls today, I’d probably win, but it’s more than just winning," he said. "You know, it’s where I think I can do the most good and what do I want to do and what’s best for my family. It’s complicated.”

 

2020

Mike Bloomberg. He spent part of Thursday in Jackson, Miss., announcing a grant with the city's popular left-wing Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba.

Tulsi Gabbard. She's speaking Saturday at the Sanders Institute Gathering, then heading to New Hampshire on Sunday for at least one meet-and-greet with Democrats.

Eric Garcetti. The Los Angeles mayor told reporters in Washington on Thursday that he will decide on a run in the first months of 2019.

John F. Kerry. He told interviewers at Harvard's Institute of Politics that he was still thinking about a run for president, 16 years after his narrow defeat at the hands of George W. Bush. “I'm not taking anything off the table,” he said, “but I haven't been running around to the most obvious states laying any groundwork.”

John McAfee. The potential 2020 libertarian presidential candidate has been getting freelance advice on how to make anime memes.

Beto O'Rourke. He's been invited to speak in New Hampshire by that state's Young Democrats, who have been holding high-profile meet-and-greets for would-be candidates.

Eric Swalwell. The California congressman will keynote Progress Iowa's holiday bash in Des Moines next month. Previous keynoters include Bernie Sanders and Bill De Blasio.

WAIT, WHAT?

Technically speaking, the 2018 election is not over until every state certifies its vote totals, and North Carolina is taking its time to do so in the 9th District. The reasons, laid out by Kirk Ross, are confounding: Rogue activists may have persuaded hundreds of voters to apply for absentee ballots and offered to deliver them, which they then failed to do.

Few states are as divided over election management as North Carolina, where Republicans capitalized on 2011 wins to draw a friendly map and used a subsequent supermajority to override Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper's vetoes of voter ID and other election-related bills. But the board governing the 9th District voted unanimously to delay certification of that race until more became known about what happened. 

It's within the board's power to call a new election if the last one appears to have been fatally flawed. It's unclear if that will happen in North Carolina. But the state is going to remain a battlefield for the voting wars in 2019 and 2020; the Republican-drawn map was overturned by courts yet kept in place for the 2018 election. Democrats, having padded their majority on the state's court, are looking at the potential of a 2020 election fought on a new map, one likely to put Harris in a far less friendly district.

DEMS IN DISARRAY

It was overshadowed by the fight over whether to give Nancy Pelosi the speaker's gavel again, but the race for Democratic conference chair was galvanizing, and ultimately bitter, for the party's left. Rep. Barbara Lee (Calif.) fell just 11 votes short of securing the position, which she began seeking five months ago. She lost it to Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (N.Y.), a favorite of party leaders and a frequent TV spokesman for the party, who has a résumé that could not clash more with that of the California congresswoman: a corporate lawyer who supports education policy unpopular with the left and opposes efforts to boycott Israel.

The irony, Democrats say, is that Jeffries's chance of winning a leadership job grew after Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez defeated Rep. Joe Crowley, the outgoing conference chairman, in a primary. With Crowley gone, the New York delegation, now up to 21 members, had no representation in the conference's top jobs. Lee, 72, also blamed “ageism” for her loss to a 48-year-old party star; had she won, all of the conference's top jobs would have been held by members of Congress in their 70s.

But the possibility of putting Lee into party leadership had tantalized the left, which has lionized her ever since she cast the sole vote against authorizing military force in Afghanistan after Sept. 11, 2001. (That authorization is still in effect, used to justify interventions in the “war on terror” without new congressional approval.) Just as the cycle began with a near miss for a party leadership position by the left (Keith Ellison's defeat in the DNC chair race), it ended with that wing of the party failing to put one of its own in the new House leadership.

What will the repercussions be? We know that liberal groups such as Justice Democrats and Democracy for America were, in the weeks since the election, talking to potential challengers to incumbent Democrats in safe seats. We have also seen Indivisible and other pressure groups created or expanded since the 2016 election, protesting some of the Democrats who have resisted Nancy Pelosi's bid for speaker. The Lee defeat, if followed by any perceived moves by Jeffries to undermine the left, is going into the cocktail of reasons activists will continue to mobilize against politicians they see as “corporate” Democrats.

READING LIST

"Republicans didn't learn anything from the midterms,” by Ronald Brownstein

Has any party lost a midterm and asked so few questions about why? Brownstein investigates. Worth noting: In an interview today with The Post's Paul Kane, retiring House Speaker Paul Ryan said that on election night, it looked like the party had lost “only” less than 30 seats. That still would have been the party's worst House midterm since 2006.

“Democrats blame Kirsten Gillibrand for Al Franken's fall,” by Christina Cauterucci

A corrective to the donors who say that New York's senator ended Franken's career to help her own: “Women who’ve been moved for the first time to progressive activism by the #MeToo movement and the presidency of an accused sexual abuser could easily be disillusioned by a party without principles.”

“Pro-Bernie group hacked in quarter-million-dollar email scam,” by Scott Bland

Our Revolution, founded by Sanders but not involved with him day-to-day, got taken by a complicated con.

“The suburbs may not be as progressive as Democrats like, but they could be,” by Sara Jones

An answer to a series of left-wing election analyses that speculated that the Democrats' gains in formerly Republican suburbs would prevent the party from embracing policy radicalism.

COUNTDOWN

... four days until Sen. John Kennedy announces whether he's running for governor of Louisiana
... five days until Georgia's secretary of state runoff
... nine days until Louisiana's runoffs for a few state offices